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Chapter 23 – Welfare Matters

 

Forming the UDR Old Comrades’ Association

“When I retired from the UDR, one of the first things I did was to form an association of old comrades so that we could meet old friends, hold social occasions and of course most importantly talk about old times and re-fight old battles.  We met in the men’s canteen at Laurel Hill; our first Hon Secretary was John Kerr. He and our first Hon. Treasurer both used a plastic bag to carry their papers!  Changed days now as all officials seem to carry lovely brief cases, although the Hon Treasurer now uses a fancy brief case containing two chequebooks and many other very secret official papers. However it soon became obvious that although the craic was still good many old comrades were not as healthy as they used to be and welfare matters came more and more to the fore and of utmost importance. 

 

Forming E Company Welfare Office

Although there was a substantial amount of money in the Benevolent Fund it was very difficult for anyone to fill in the forms and go through the other hoops necessary.  The Army Welfare Office had to deal mostly with family matters and their own serving soldiers.

I felt it necessary to try to organise our own Welfare office and staff who knew the local area and the men and women who had served the local community so well.

 

Sourcing Funds

What a task this turned out to be.  I went to many meetings, met many government officials and just listened to how others were setting themselves up with Government and EU money.  I must say that many of these organisations seemed pretty odd and many of the things I have learned at these meetings I could not repeat. I did meet members of Loyalists and Nationalists who were out to get what they felt they needed.   Amongst these people was the MP for Fermanagh and hasn’t she come a long way.

 

Applying For Funds

First of all I managed to get a grant from the EU to hold a survey of potential members and their future needs.  We were extremely lucky to have a room etc given to us at Laurel Hill so our financial needs were small compared to some and only the salary of staff had to be considered plus a few other items.  Certain members of NIVT were very kind and came to help us through the maze of forms necessary and helped us give the right answers to questions which in fact had to be given with emphasis on facts that impressed the committee concerned. 

 

Spreading the Word

When I knew my way round and had received our grant I felt I should tell other UDR Associations how to go about setting up their own Welfare Groups as it is fair to say that some branches had a greater need than ours.  Strangely this was frowned upon by the “headyins”. So I went on my own and this is why there is only one Welfare Office not connected with the Army.    On the good side when we found ourselves with a cut in our grants it was the UDR Benevolent Fund who came to our aid.

 

Advertising for a Welfare Officer

Our first task was to advertise (as per grant regulations) for a Welfare Officer.  Many good people applied but the outstanding candidate was a Sergeant “Greenfinch” Liz Clarke.  She understood from her own experiences how to help others and by going to many meetings she soon found out the ways fundraising worked.

 

New Welfare Office Premises

Eventually Laurel Hill closed and the Army gradually disappeared.  We had to find a home in 2001.  It needed to be accessible and of course this meant more money!

 

We managed to get a central office in New Row in Coleraine and gradually our borrowed equipment was updated and experts like our new Chairman were able to help.  We also acquired photographs and other memorabilia to make quite a pleasant base for old members to come to and Liz dispensed tea and buns to all and sundry.  It was a success move and with the help of Alan, Charlie and others it has prospered” George Lapsley (2007).

 

 

The Welfare Officer

 

All In A Day’s Work – And More

To describe a typical day working as Welfare Officer with the Association would be very difficult as each day is different, bringing with it new problems and challenges. Since we opened the office in the town centre 2001 we have all been involved in a steep learning curve trying to balance what the ‘funders’ expect of us and what our members actually need. 

As with anything involving outside finance there is no such thing as a ‘free lunch’ and paperwork begets paperwork, meetings to ensure your face is known, working on the premise, probably naively, that if ‘funders’ know you personally they are more likely to look favourably at funding applications. All this takes up valuable time which some would say could be better spent.

 

Having said that, a typical day starts with a quick cup of tea and chat about the plan for the day ahead with my hard working volunteer, Charlie.  The plans have always one thing in common; they are always good, always well thought out and always unsuccessful because we do not know who is going to walk through the door and what problem they might have.  Sometimes it can be easily worked out with a quick phone call to any number of contacts built up over the years but sometimes it can be more complex requiring a lot time, effort and sensitive handling. 

 

When members are in need of financial assistance we can approach the UDR Benevolent Fund for some help.  The Fund was set up in the early 1970s when it was the opinion of the courts that compensation to the tune of £400 for a murdered husband was enough for the family!!!  The Fund has flourished and can provide financial support to all former members of the UDR and their families who are in need, when the relevant paperwork has been completed, of course.

 

The UDR was formed in 1970 and many of the recruits at that time were in the 30-year-old age group and in some cases the 40s. We have an aged client base and with all the inherent problems thereof. Trying to get a handle on the inflexible and unimaginative working of government departments especially the benefits branch is a very necessary part of our work, especially when working with that age group. 

Also try to convince people who have worked all their lives, in the case of part time soldiers carrying on two jobs, that they should apply for benefits which help their quality of life is not easy.  Sadly another part of this equation is the trust issue; the idea of confiding in a stranger your work history is not only invasive but raises the issue of personal security. After over 30 years of vigilance the transition to a purely civilian mode of thinking is not easy.

 

One of the many sad cases I had to deal with was an elderly lady who was in poor health. Her son had served in the Regiment and had died in a tragic accident.  I visited her on several occasions and helped to sort out financial problems and just to have a chat with her.  One day she said to me that when her son was alive she thought of him first thing when she woke and last thing before she closed her eyes. On every visit to the local supermarket she bought something he might like as a treat because she worried about him and now she did not have to worry about him any more. But the worry had been so much easier to bear than the pain she now had to bear all day, every day.  She followed her son not long after.  I never understood why God could not have let her son live just a few months longer and follow the natural course and let him bury his mother.

 

Cancer is common among our membership and watching some of them fight this appalling disease with the same fortitude and determination that they fought the IRA is moving.  One of our Greenfinches fought the disease for years and never gave up hope even when it returned for the fourth time.  Sadly she lost that battle but she never lost her sense of humour and pride in herself, demanding that her hair was washed and ‘set’ regularly.  Visiting her every week in the hospital was a hard task but she was always so glad to see visitors and that helped me!  She was weighed about 6 stone when two of our Greenfinches along with her two daughters and granddaughters carried her coffin into Killowen Church, Coleraine.

 

On a brighter note our ‘Drop in Centre ‘ in New Row is a great success with people dropping all the time for a chat, a cup of tea and a look (and in many cases a good laugh at the hair cuts) at the many old photographs.  I have heard ‘manys’ a good story over of a cuppa and a digestive biscuit and quite a few not for publication.   Also, quite often, after a causal chat the main reason for the visit can emerge and that is when the most important part of my job starts.  That can range I said before from financial difficulties, to problems with form filling, but also to the physical and mental problems faced by many of our members.

 

Problems like arthritis are prevalent from to long spend in the ditches doing cover man, bad knees caused by to many long training marches on hard surfaces, wearing army boots and carrying heavy bergans, damaged hearing (inadequate or rather non existent hearing protection issued for use on full bore ranges) and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  Try getting a GP in Coleraine to recognise and correctly treat someone suffering from PTSD; the Army has only recently admitted to such a thing exists.  All these new battles have to be fought and won for all members who served in the UDR and while the funding lasts we will fight on

 

The people I deal with come in all shapes, sizes, sex and ages but all have one thing in common; they all served their country in the UDR with courage and pride and they deserve the very best that can be done for both them and their families.

 

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